The Best Gift I Can Give

During the Christmas season, I am generally a scrooge. Not surprisingly, I loathe shopping malls where the almighty god of commercialization is most worshipped. This past weekend, I was at a mall in Metro-Detroit – a suburban sprawl which requires a 30-minute commute to seemingly every destination. This mall was packed to the gills, and I felt like a human bumper cart weaving in and out of overpriced clothing stores. Me being me, I ranted to Christina the whole time about how stupid it all was and how I couldn’t wait for the holidays to be over. My wife is the opposite of my curmudgeon self; her ideal world would probably be the one located inside a snowflake where celebrations occur for maxed-out credit cards – Whoville. After a few grumpy rants, Christina started to deter my negativity with every woman’s rationalization for the holidays…

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Me – “What is the point of buying all these gifts that no one needs?! I can’t wait till the 26th.”

Christina – “MY LOVE (not said in a loving way) stop being an old man. Christmas is all about tradition and celebrating family.”

Me – “Why can’t we just celebrate family without all the gifts? It just makes us materialistic.”

Christina – “We have to give gifts because God gave us the gift of baby Jesus. That is why we need to stand in line for an hour at Pandora and buy a $100 charm. And if you don’t shut up I am going to buy some gifts at that new vegetarian make-up store that doesn’t believe in “sales.”

Me – “Alright, I’ll stop. Maybe we can find a “What Would Jesus Do” charm?”

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This conversation is a microcosm of the American Christmas experience. That is why I wanted to write this blog about the reason for the season. Jesus is indeed a forgotten figure during this time, and I thought it would be fun to juxtapose some of His philosophy with the philosophy in my most recent classic The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.

The Prince is a how-to guide to being a powerful and successful monarch during the 1500’s. Although the book is old, it has many sad truths about how politicians can climb the career ladder – the term “Machiavellian” is defined as…

cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one’s career.

Essentially, Machiavelli makes the point that a Prince needs to be ready at any time for battle…

“A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study; but war and its organisation and disciplice, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands…”

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 A key component in the battle of politics is to know when to be good and when to be evil…

“Therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case.”

This advice sadly has a lot of relevance today for politicians and government officials. Put in another way, one must appear in public as an angel and in private as a demon – sounds like a House of Cards episode.

The advice of the Earthly Prince must be juxtaposed with the Heavenly Prince of Jesus. Jesus said that…

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” Luke 6:27-30
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Humility and generosity should be the most common tools of today’s leaders. Aggression, deceit, and pride all help individuals reach temporary power – shortsightedly killing the goose to get the golden egg. Leadership depends on relationships and relationships depend on some degree of love.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7
So this Christmas let’s give each other the gift of mercy. Let’s be more patient with each other. Let’s be more empathetic with each other. Let’s be more honest with each other. The material gifts on the 25th will eventually fade away, but the rewards of virtue will make you feel like royalty throughout the rest of the year.
Merry Christmas Everyone

The Poison of Comfort

Most of us are prisoners to comfort. Our lives are shaped, adjusted, and optimized to experience all sorts of pleasure. Take the common experience of taking a dump. The toilet seat is not too high or low as to elicit discomfort while sitting or squeezing. The lighting is soft and there are usually good smelling agents to mask your butt smell. The toilet paper is soft and textured for easy excavation. If you are in Japan, the toilet will even shoot water on your cheeks while playing soothing music. The removal of the poop only requires pushing a handle and sometimes no work at all with automatic flushers. After the disposal, you wash your hands in water that required no effort to gather. I love a good bathroom experience just as much as the next fricker but it made me think how we get use to all the luxuries in our life.

Being an adult has a lot of perks. Many of these perks include choice: what to eat, when to sleep, where to vacation, what we live in, who we spend time with, etc. Of course we don’t get everything we want but on a daily basis we do a good job at being comfortable. I love being able to make choices to optimize my day to day life. The problem with comfort is that we can quickly adapt and become use to our hedonism. This adaptation happens because we become accustomed to stimulus overtime. For example, the comfy bed becomes the norm, the running water becomes the norm, the after-work ice cream becomes the norm. These small comforts are great but we tend to desire more comfort stimulus overtime. That stinky hotel that you thought was the beezneez when you were 20 is now replaced with the Hilton. The shower head that cleaned you countless of times is now in the trash replaced by ShowerHead10000XSuperMax. Is it bad to increase this comfort? What is wrong about wanting to stay in a Hilton?

Inherently nothing. Who doesn’t want a shower head that mimics Niagara Falls? There is a problem though when comfort is not countered by the uncomfortable. We need contrast in our lives so that we avoid hedonic adaptation and the ever increasing desire for stimulus. Being uncomfortable is not a popular pursuit but it is so essential to a happy life. A great example of this is when the lights go out during a storm. We take for granted the comforts of electricity and in its absence we are uncomfortable. But when those lights turn on again there is a rush of euphoria that is quite pronounced. Another example would be camping. Sure, you may have a great time (or not) but everyone would agree that going home to your own bed feels like heaven. This is because the stimulus changed and we had enough contrast to forestall the adaptation process. This concept can be applied to everything. Is your sex life dull? A lot of people may go for a bigger and better sex stimulus. No need. Just take a break and let that stimulus become novel again. House to small? Most people would say get a bigger house. No need. Make it a goal to use half your house for a month. After that your brain will explode with all the available space. Use contrast to better your life, limit excess, and experience optimal happiness. Comfort, although awesome, is a drug and can be poisonous-consider this an intervention.

Plastic: Birds, Beaches, and Bodies

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The obese albatross was having quite a hard time sailing through the air. Obese being the wrong descriptor, the bird had all its weight centered around the stomach like a varsity-jacket-wearing 45-year-old male. It was a quite odd site and it seemed like the bird was designed for heavy bomb drops and not quick-swirling noise dives like his counterparts. All of a sudden the heavyset bird hit a patch of hard wind and the belly was lifted up as if composed of a material that was not dense but quite light. Although there was a strange lightness to the protrusion, the bird continued to sink further and further towards the mating lands of his ancestors. Below him were thousands of little baby chicks just hatching to start a life filled with majestic days of flying through the skies as he had done so many times before. Sadly though, this bird’s last experience of flying would end quite soon. The bird suddenly began coughing, choking, and hacking, making his flight look like a shot-down-black-hawk helicopter. The crash was eminent and I wonder in those last seconds whether his life passed before his eyes: making love to his seagull woman, regurgitating food for his chicks, pooping on cars, squawking with his friends. Mothers quickly moved their chicks out of the way, elder birds looked on in horror and finally the sickened leviathan hit the ground with a force that lifted a mushroom cloud of feathers. No average bird could survive that fall and the other birds began to collect decorative seashells for the funeral. But wait! The bird was still moving! The bird was still alive, the large stomach must have cushioned the load. Would he survive this unbelievable ordeal? Sadly, his movement was short lived with one last violent coughing fit. The bird lay still as his counterparts went on their way coughing in an eerily similar manner to their now dead friend. A few weeks later the bird was still in his death spot, but now that large gut of his had spilled open. The contents looked like one of those stores that sells cheap party supplies: a toy ring, reusable lighter, a disposable fork, and a whole host of worthless plastic junk. The plastic in the bird was tangled and knotted, looking as if it was in a continual loop of digestion for quite some time. What kind of bird would eat plastic? Maybe he thought it was a new tasty food like a fat  kid salivating over candy at the checkout counter. The answer became clearer when the mating territory was combed over. Trash as far as the eye could see. The gulls were surrounded by a cornucopia of junk that engrossed their entire food system. Worse than the trash, was the litter of bird carcasses that lay among the waste-the natural birds’ bodies composting while the unnatural plastic eternally waited for its next victim.

This story is fake but the premise stands in the fact that our plastic trash has a real effect on the health of our world. Plastic is ubiquitous and we use it everyday without much thought to where it goes after we throw it away. I wanted to know more about plastic so I read Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel. The book made me analyze how I use plastic and what impact it has on my life. Plastic became quite popular after World War II and inundated the market with the promise of convenience, functionality, affordability, and durability. We became a throw-away culture and began using many plastic products one time before tossing them in the trash. Plastic lasts a very long time and our land fills, oceans, and beaches are now suffocating from its “durability.” The role plastic plays in our life is complex and there is no easy answer to what we should do about the plastic that is already in our environment. What we can do is take personal responsibility with our everyday use of plastic and try to reduce, reuse, and recycle. First, reduce the amount of trash you create by buying less single-serve food items and less material crap in general. Second, buy reusable-tote bags instead of using single use plastic bags at the grocery store. Thirdly, take a minute to throw the plastic that you do have in the proper recycling containers. These are easy steps to do your part in making the world a better place. Less plastic means less litter, less plastic chemicals getting in your food, less plastic getting in our bodies, and less depressing pictures posted on this blog.

Racist Smells to Rising Empires

Which type of meat would you like in your Chop Suey…rat, cat, or dog? Is this an odd question that seems completely ridiculous? Unfortunately, the idea that Chinese people ate these dirty or taboo types of meat came about in the mid 1800’s. The first major influx of Chinese immigrants to the US was during the 1849 gold rush in California. These early immigrants were a source of cheap labor in three distinct industries: mining, personal servants, and laundry. The early Chinese immigrants were pigeonholed to these lower class jobs because of racism and a general sense of superiority by white Americans. The history of Chinese food in America begins in this setting of prejudice and is explored in detail in the book Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America by Yong Chen. The early Chinese immigrants were seen as barbaric propagators of disease and hence the myth came about that they ate the animal equivalent of themselves- sewer rats. Early Chinese food in America was also given negative press because the restaurants in the mid 1800’s had distinct unfamiliar smells. These smells were from the Chinese tobacco smoked and the unique spices used in cooking; unfortunately, white Americans associated them with dirtiness and race inferiority. This was the stigma that Chinese food had to battle against and it is truly amazing that today, Chinese food is the most popular ethnic cuisine in America. How the heck did this happen?

The negative stigma towards Chinese immigrants began to shift from dirty rats to great workers throughout the late 1800’s. Whites commonly employed Chinese men as house servants because they were extremely hard workers, attentive, and more than anything clean. As more immigrants moved into the US, “China Towns” were erected to give the isolated Chinese a community and sense of home. These exotic town centers propagated a large amount of Chinese restaurants that served authentic Chinese food. As time went on, the image of Chinese cleanliness along with a shift away from personal servants provided a huge source of ideal restaurant laborers; this created a surge of Chinese restaurants throughout the US in the early 1900’s. The restaurateurs quickly began to shift their menus from traditional delicacies like bird nest soup and shark fin to the more Americanized dishes like Chop Suey and Egg Foo Yong. Along with adjustments to America’s gastronomical tastes, Chinese food filled America’s imperialistic tastes-material abundance, expansion, and democracy.

Chinese food in the twentieth century met the demands of the growing empire of America by providing cheap labor, affordable food, and quick service. The ever expanding middle class flocked to restaurants because it was a symbol of wealth and social status. Chinese food was the perfect democratic fit for all races, classes, and economic demographics. African Americans, Jews, and those in their 20’s especially flocked to Chinese restaurants as a haven where they felt accepted (for the most part). Chinese food was the original McDonald’s that fed a rising nation and created the quick, cheap food culture that is ubiquitous in the 21st century. Today, Chinese restaurants continue to adapt to American tastes and are more popular than ever. The history of Chinese food in America is not just a story of food but rather the relationship between two empires. China’s cheap labor satisfied America’s mass consumer needs in nearly every sector of the economy. The next time you eat some Crab Rangoon or Sesame Chicken think about how much that seemingly unimportant food allowed you to drive an over sized SUV, live in an over sized house, and live the over sized American lifestyle.